thoughts on the Circle of Life Zulu lyrics

thoughts on the Circle of Life Zulu lyrics

Postby Gaze » May 9th, 2016, 12:27 am

today, while avoiding some reading for class, I found myself listening to the extended version of the "Call of the Guard" from the TLG soundtrack on youtube. while browsing the comments, one in particular stood out to me - a reply to someone who wished they knew the English translation of the lyrics: "It would probably ruin the whole experience. Lyrics are most likely in the same category with 'The Circle of Life' lyrics, so the they probably don't make any sense."

that comment rubbed me the wrong way a bit. the implication seems to be that, since the vast majority of TLK's American audience (and, now, TLG's American audience) probably doesn't know a word of Zulu or Swahili, it is likely that all the non-English lyrics to songs associated with the TLK franchise are nonsense or gibberish - why write meaningful lyrics if most of the audience won't understand them?

of course, any of us fans who admire the music from the films know that isn't the case. Lebo M's involvement with TLK, SP, 1.5, and TLKoB says it all, really. perhaps Disney could have hired some American musician with a weak grasp on the Zulu language to write some lyrics of questionable accuracy and let that slide, but they didn't - instead a native of South Africa was brought on to the project, and it's evident that he feels quite a bit of passion for the music of TLK and has injected plenty of meaning and elements of African tradition into his work. I think many will agree with me that this is part of what makes TLK a special film.

now, perhaps that youtube commenter didn't exactly mean to say that the CoL lyrics are nonsensical. the usual translation, which can be found on lionking.org and elsewhere around the net:
Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba [Here comes a lion, Father]
Sithi uhm ingonyama [Oh yes, it's a lion]

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba
Sithi uhhmm ingonyama
Ingonyama

Siyo Nqoba [We're going to conquer]
Ingonyama
Ingonyama nengw' enamabala [A lion and a leopard come to this open place]

obviously, the English translation is very straightforward. it seems strange to me to claim that the lyrics "make no sense." so maybe what that commenter meant to suggest was that the lyrics are so simple and straightforward that they seem to hold no significant meaning. well, that's one man's opinion - IMHO, the simplicity of the words in no way "ruins the whole experience" or undermines the value of the music.

but! of course, I was determined to continue avoiding my homework, so I wondered if perhaps there was any deeper meaning to the CoL lyrics.

I remember seeing a post going around on Tumblr where people who had just learned the translation of these lyrics were laughing about how simple they are, despite sounding so dramatic and intense in the song. I also vaguely recall that one person responded to the post claiming that the lyrics actually are meant to refer to a coming-of-age ritual in a specific African culture, wherein boys must kill a lion in order to become a warrior...or something along those lines. unfortunately, it was a long time ago that I read that claim, so I don't know what group was being referred to or whether there were sources for this info.

still, I decided to do a brief Google search and see if I could find any leads.
this source confirms that a tradition like the one I saw described does exist the Maasai culture. there are other sources which confirm this, but there is no apparent link between the Maasai people and Lebo M, the Zulu language, or the CoL lyrics, so I don't think there is quite enough evidence to say with confidence that Lebo M was inspired by this tradition. still, the lyrics certainly do evoke an image of a young warrior sighting a lion on the day of the hunt and preparing to "conquer", which would be an important life event worthy of a powerful and hair-raising chant like the one we hear in CoL.
if anyone has any thoughts or other information on this, I'd be very interested to hear!

avoiding my homework further.....I decided to do a little more Google exploration and see if I could find any other information on the lyrics. I came across a blog post sharing the English translation of the lyrics. the same translation I posted above was used. here's a link.
most of the comments on the post are ridiculous, unrelated arguments, but I chose to tough it out and scroll through, and I came upon this very interesting comment:
First-language Zulu-speaker here. A few corrections:

-- It's "bakithi" not "bagiti".

-- "Ingonyama nengw' enamabala" means "a lion and a leopard that has spots", not "a lion and leopard come to this open place". I see how you might have made this error though: "amabala" are spots, while "ibala" is an open (typically earthen) yard. The singular present participle of the verb "to have", "ukuba na-" (i.e. "to be with -"), is "ena-" (i.e. "that has -"). When prefixed to "amabala", you get "enamabala" (i.e. "that has spots" or "that is spotted").

-- The repeated phrase under the English lyric is "ingonyama; ingw' enamabala" (the conjugation "and" drops away, leaving the repeated chant, "lion; spotted leopard".

-- "-Ngonyama" is the chief traditional title of the (male) Zulu monarch, and distinguishes the idiomatic, honourific use of "[The] Lion", from "-bhubesi", the common word for "lion". To a Zulu speaker, the difference (though playful) is key, and inflects the lyric with an entirely different semantic quality to that which I imagine English speakers receive upon hearing the introduction.

while all of this information was new to me and quite exciting to read, I was definitely most impacted by the last bullet point! in other words, the use of "-ngonyama" instead of "-bhubesi" is wordplay, simultaneously saying that a lion is approaching, and that a king is approaching.

Google Books shows a couple sources that confirm "Ngonyama" is an honorific title for the king that means "lion." here's one, and here's another.

though it's just one subtle piece of context, I think it adds a significant depth to the song and is worth learning about. brushing off the lyrics as being meaningless or nonsensical seems unfair to me!

if you have any thoughts or insights about the meanings/context of the CoL lyrics or any other use of African languages in the franchise, please do share......I'm all ears
8-)
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Re: thoughts on the Circle of Life Zulu lyrics

Postby Amur_Tiger » May 9th, 2016, 5:58 pm

Funnily the last bit of the interchangeability of 'King' and 'Lion' strikes me as the least surprising given there's similar consideration towards tigers by the cultures of Asia.

Otherwise that's neat stuff, though do we have a complete and accurate translation now with that commentary from the Zulu speaker?
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Re: thoughts on the Circle of Life Zulu lyrics

Postby TheLionPrince » May 12th, 2016, 8:23 pm

You do have a very compelling argument about the African lyrics of "Circle of Life". I do know Hans Zimmer said some of the African lyrics were supposed to be political on the 2011 bonus feature "Pride of The Lion King", but he may be referring to the song "Busa" with the translated context to mean rule the land. Lebo himself confirmed the music "was inspired by my South African roots" to The Sydney Morning Herald, which isn't saying much. Nevertheless, his roots are very much tied into apartheid-ridden South Africa and his admiration for the late Nelson Mandela, and Mandela has been often known to be "the Father" by his Xhosa clan name in which the lyrics of "Busa" may be referring to ("Shwele baba" means "Hail to you, Father"). Again, I was probably no help, but it's my own little theory.
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Re: thoughts on the Circle of Life Zulu lyrics

Postby Squeely » July 26th, 2016, 9:54 am

I always figured it was fairly simplistic because chants kinda have to be. Hard to chant entire paragraphs, y'know? Kudos to you and all the research you did. It's awesome to learn about the deeper meanings hidden within.
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